On ViewHauser & Wirth
Paul McCarthy: A&E Sessions–Drawing and Painting
February 23 – April 10, 2021
New York, NY
The exhibition A&E Sessions at Hauser and Wirth comprises works made as a result of Paul McCarthy’s multi-disciplinary project A&E, which was produced by the artist during improvisatory performances involving him and the Berlin-born German actor Lilith Stangenberg. These works, drawings, paintings, and an assemblage of objects drawn from the performances, including recorded sound, act as both documentation and by-product of McCarthy’s critical approach to socio-political-psychological themes resulting from his practice of hybridization. Stangenberg, familiar from her notable performance in Frank Wedekind’s Lulu at Berlin’s Volksbühne theatre (2019) has said, “I definitely developed a kind of longing for this extreme in recent years. I always look for some sort of dissolution of boundaries.” What better partner for McCarthy’s latest venture into unrestraint?
During performances, McCarthy and Stangenberg pushed and pulled each other over the surface of panels or paper laid flat on a platform, whilst drawing with pencil, charcoal and peanut butter, mark-making, smearing, erasing and adding collage elements. This recalls McCarthy’s earliest, horizontally made paintings, which were created in 1966 and 1967 while he was still a student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. They comprised large paintings on wooden door panels, placed flat on the ground so that he was able to climb on top of them. He drew on those panels, painted them with a rag using only black paint, and then pounded on them with a hammer, transforming their surfaces, over which he then poured gasoline and burnt.
A&E is titled for Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun and was scripted by McCarthy as the further exploration of an earlier performance that referenced the sadomasochistic relationship between a former Nazi camp guard and one of his female victims depicted in Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter. Drawn images of a cartoonish Hitler appear in some of the works here. Take, for example, A&E, KNEE SUCK, Santa Anita Session (2020) or A&E, EVADOOLF EVA, Santa Anita session (2020). The blue tape used to secure the paper during a performance is still present in the framed drawings, the scrawled words, initials, letters, and collage images of which form open constellations of sometimes incomprehensible gestures and neologisms or, on the other hand, cursory and graphic renderings of genitalia and a scene of zoophilia. Hitler appears again in the painting, A&E, CAT TOWER, Santa Anita (2019), which includes a cat tree stuck onto the canvas just above the infamous character’s head. A&E EVA ADOLF, Tehachapi (2019) also includes found objects, in this instance a chair placed on a table, which sits on the floor right of the painting.
In McCarthy’s faux automatism—often a visceral and anti-rational form of play—the glut of unacknowledged, socialized confusion and misdirection now apparently endemic in society on both sides of the political divide, is exposed through his characteristic, absurdist humor—an abject spiritedness unleashed. The roots of McCarthy’s formal approach and subject matter derive from the cataclysmic upheaval of the mid-twentieth century and subsequent on-going reactions to it. Alan Kaprow’s influential 1966 publication Assemblage, Environments and Happenings was a key influence in offering ways to expand the performative aspects of Ab Ex, and Jackson Pollock’s contribution in particular. At the same time the pernicious attempts of applied psychoanalysis—Edward Bernays’s public relations manipulator as a prime example—to control the general population’s psyche, and its destructive tendencies, were justified as an attempt to preempt a repetition in America of National Socialist Movement psychopathy—all the while enabling mindless consumerism.
As George Grosz countered Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist threat, McCarthy takes aim at repressive, malignant forces of his own era that are much more insidious and highly evolved, where boundaries between private and public are in many ways erased, conflated and further monetized, enabled by our reliance on ever more powerful and intrusive technologies. We can’t say that we weren’t warned: Martin Heidegger was appalled at the ever-estranging effects of technology in removing us from our ability to be human, and aware of being in the world. McCarthy levels experience, using the things around him—tables, chairs, pea-nut butter, basic tools—in unmediated, direct expression and play, far from the received ideas of myth, be it that of Adolf and Eva or Adam and Eve.